The Bay Bridge (toll $4-6) links I-80 to San Francisco from the east, and the Golden Gate Bridge (toll $6–7, all electronic) connects Highway 1 from the north. From the south, U.S. 101 and I-280 snake up the peninsula and into the City. Be sure to get a detailed map and good directions to drive into San Francisco—the freeway interchanges, especially surrounding the east side of the Bay Bridge, can be confusing, and the traffic congestion is legendary. For traffic updates and route planning, call 511.
A car of your own is not necessarily beneficial in San Francisco. The hills are daunting, traffic can be excruciating, and, worst of all, parking prices are absurd. If you plan to spend all of your time in the City, consider dispensing with a car and using cabs and public transit options. Rent a car when you’re ready to leave San Francisco, or turn your rental in early if the City is your last stop.
If you absolutely must have your car with you, try to get a room at a hotel with a parking lot and either free parking or a parking package for the length of your stay.
All the major car rental agencies have a presence at the San Francisco Airport (SFO, 800/435-9736). In addition, most reputable hotels can offer or recommend a car rental. Rates tend to run $90-160 per day and $250-550 per week (including taxes and fees), with discounts for weekly and longer rentals. If you’re flying into Mineta San José Airport (SJC) or Oakland Airport (OAK), the cost can drop to $110-250 per week for budget agencies. Premium agencies like Hertz and Avis are much pricier—you’ll pay $375-650 for the same car. Off-site locations may offer cheaper rates, in the range of about $375 per week.
Driving in San Francisco can be confusing. Like most major metropolitan centers, one-way streets, alleys, streetcars, taxis, bicycles, and pedestrians all provide impediments to navigation. Touring around the City to see the sights means traffic jams filled with workers on weekdays and travelers on weekends. It means negotiating the legendary steep hills without crashing into the cars behind and in front of you.
To call parking in San Francisco a nightmare is to insult nightmares. Every available scrap of land that can be built on has been built on with little left over to create parking for the zillions of cars that pass through on a daily basis. Parking a car in San Francisco can easily cost $50 per day or more. Most downtown and Union Square hotels do not include free parking with your room. Expect to pay $35-45 per night for parking, which may not include in-and-out privileges.
Street parking spots are as rare as unicorns and often require permits (which visitors cannot obtain, as a rule, unless they’re friends of Danielle Steel). Parking lots and garages fill up quickly, especially during special events. You’re more likely to find parking included at the motels along the edge of the city—Fisherman’s Wharf, the Marina, the Richmond, and the Sunset district have the most motor inns with parking included. You definitely don’t want to spend your vacation to San Francisco circling the street like a shark hoping to get a parking space.